What Is InBloom and Why Is It Collecting Data on School Children?

In Common Core and other federal education matters, no name stirs up more controversy than inBloom, the 2013 nonprofit rebranded from predecessor Smart Learning Collaboration (SLC). 

Originally launched with nine states on board, inBloom has been accused of everything from collecting to tracking to selling data on the nation's K-12 kids, resulting in a handful of those states dropping out. However, inBloom wants to engage its critics and make an effort to challenge the assertions made about their role in the student data controversy.

What is inBloom? Pumped up by $100 million in start-up money from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, it states the following concerning its purpose: 

[The] mission is to provide a valuable resource to teachers, students and families, to improve education. We solve a common technology issue facing school districts today: the inability of electronic instructional tools used in classrooms to work in coordination with (or “talk to”) one another.

The inBloom official website also claims that through technology, they are here to help tailor learning, inform parents, save time and money, and enhance data privacy and security; because "to succeed in today’s global economy, students need learning experiences that meet their individual needs, engage them deeply, and let them learn at their own pace." It goes on to say:

This requires teachers to have an up-to-date picture of a student’s progress; an understanding of where he or she needs extra attention; and access to materials that will help progress their students’ learning. inBloom is a nonprofit organization helping to make this possible by providing efficient and cost-effective means for school districts to give teachers the information and tools necessary to strengthen their connection with each student.

Sharren Bates, Chief Product Officer and a Gates Foundation alumnus responsible for the vision, strategy, design, and development of all products and services at inBloom, spoke with Breitbart News and described their product as a "piece of infrastructure," likening it to a highway that connects its customers who are public school districts.

"The way we achieve that mission is by offering a very technical backend service," said Bates. She also said the issue is complicated by nature and difficult to explain, adding that she understands how this might be confusing to the public. Bates said that "words like 'tracking' and 'data-mining' mischaracterize what inBloom does."

"We are absolutely not data-mining," added Garrett Suhm, inBloom's Chief Technology Officer. He admitted, "We've done a terrible PR job in explaining what we do and in correcting the misperception, [but] we are absolutely not creating a national data-base." 

Correcting what inBloom claims are misconceptions about the company becomes more difficult when the inBloom privacy and security policy introduction on the company's official website contains the very buzz words that fuel the privacy rights firestorm: "store" and "share."

No one is really sure what information is being collected, either. Missouri Education Watchdog's Gretchen Logue, a critic of inBloom, pointed out that the "data mining is not just centered on educational information." She added:

This educational reform also requires personal information on students and their families... and with the expansion of FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) allowing information to flow freely, this information will be supplied to research firms, contractors, and other interested parties.

Bates insisted to Breitbart News that inBloom's intention is to provide the best options for kids, families, and teachers. This is what she described as: "...online practice tools or online classroom level kind of quiz tools." Bates added, "They are exactly the kind of experiences you want for kids and teachers and families to have together." Before what she called "the 'inBloom solution,'" a teacher was "logging into three, four, five different websites which took prep and student time away, turning the teacher into a data administrator instead of creating  great learning opportunities with students."

Bates noted that what they do is technical in nature, and yes, data is being collected: data on students, their families, and teachers. Bates then dismissed any issue with such data collection by saying, "School districts have been doing so since the beginning of the Internet." 

Additional pushback against inBloom may well come from paragraph one of the company's privacy and security policy, again from the company's official website, which identifies that the "service also helps State Educational Agencies in evaluating federal—and state—supported education programs." Words like "state" and "federal" raise eyebrows when joined with data on children.

In 2013, the Heartland Institute's Joy Pullman, another critic of inBloom, reported more troubling information. She wrote, "The U.S. Department of Education is funding and mandating databases that could expand each kid's academic records into a comprehensive personal record." This would include, she continued, "health care history, disciplinary record, family income range, family voting status and religious affiliation." She then added, "Under agreements every state signed to get 2009 stimulus funds, they must share students' academic data with the federal government." Pullman sourced her data to a 2012 Pioneer Institute report and the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES).

Still, inBloom's Suhm insisted, "We have nothing to hide." He added, "Everything we do is open online for review because we are open-source." The term "open source" means publicly accessible. Suhm invited anyone to visit the website's FAQ library of downloadable documentation. He hopes that this will help allay the public's fears. He even shared that, as a parent, he, too, has the same privacy concerns, and he emphasized that the public also should be concerned by the "unbelievable amounts of personal data" kids give away freely online on sites like Instagram, Reddit, and Pinterest. 

Furthermore, Suhm said, "inBloom is not using any data to market student information to third party vendors." He added, "inBloom provides the super-information highway to allow different systems to communicate so that schools can simplify their systems. We implemented the standard."

Bates also touched on this issue while speaking with Breitbart News and said she "wanted to make sure it was clear to the public" that local school districts are the ones that "legally control everything" from the purchase of a product to the tracked fields. She said that parents need to take these concerns to their local school districts. She also asserted that inBloom isn't doing anything wrong. They provide a service to their school district customers. 

Yet the misperceptions continue for a variety of reasons, including the inBloom tracking fields, which extend far beyond students' grades. Pullman pointed out in her article that "no one knows what personal data the Common Core tests will collect, because those tests have yet to be written and released." She also wrote, "But this information mother-lode has to come from somewhere. Since the tests are being written by private organizations, although entirely funded so far by the federal government, no one can do a public records request to find out."

This makes it more challenging for inBloom to clear its name, although Suhm noted, "We just operate the servers. We can't see or access the (encrypted) data unless we have special access granted by the customer." He described servers where coded software speak to each other and in which inBloom "segregates" all personally identifiable data. Bates told Breitbart News that only in a "tech support emergency," upon the customer's request, would data ever be seen by inBloom. She claimed they take their responsibilities as software and privacy experts seriously.

Still, this isn't helping sway public opinion—nor are claims made by the Washington, D.C.-based national Software and Information Industry Association that students' privacy is well-protected by federal law and by a superior level of encryption technology.

Perhaps the biggest reason for this disconnect between inBloom and the general public is best explained by Push Back author, B.K. Eakman. In an interview with Breitbart News, Eakman stated, "inBloom operates from a world viewpoint put out in the mainstream media that data collection is okay." She also said she feels the public's fears are not allayed because people wonder why potentially massively invasive personal information is being collected at all. As Eakman posited, "If you like your privacy, you can't keep it." And for this very reason, the contentious data collection debate will likely continue.


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